Themes and Meanings
The story is a fantasy-allegory portraying the critical condition of religion in the modern world. The explorer, representing the humanitarian outlook of a secularist culture, visits an earth that is in a state of sin. The old commandant created and organized the penal colony and invented its dreadful machinery of justice/injustice—call him the god of an authoritarian faith. Somehow he lost his hold over the colony, but one day he may return and reclaim it. Meanwhile his fanatic disciple, the officer, serves the colony as its police officer, judge, and executioner.
What the explorer must choose on this island is either morality or spirituality, for Kafka regards the two as having suffered schism. The Old Order is revoltingly sadistic, but, according to the officer’s testimony, it does offer humankind redemption through an agonizing ritual of pain. “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer,” exults the officer. “What times these were, my comrade!” Nevertheless, the explorer has no difficulty condemning the Old Order’s inquisitorial severity: “The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable.”
The New Order is humane, sentimental, and concerned with the colony’s economic and political recovery. It allows the machine to fall into disrepair while improving the island’s harbor installations. The New Order, however, lacks the strength of conviction to confront the practices of the Old Order directly and abolish them...
(The entire section is 624 words.)